An Emerging Strategic Partnership: Trends in Russia-China Military Cooperation

One more policy brief from the series on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russia-China military cooperation.  Several sections of this brief are based on previous work on Russia-China cooperation that was co-authored with Michael Kofman, Paul Schwartz, and Katherine Baughman.

As with the previous ones, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the newly updated Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.


Executive Summary

  • Since 2014, Russia and China have developed a strategic partnership, primarily due to enhanced military cooperation, including sales of advanced military equipment and an increasingly robust program of bilateral and multi-lateral military exercises. Economic and diplomatic cooperation have also increased, though to a much lesser extent.
  • Bilateral cooperation is unlikely to advance to the level of a full alliance because of differences in geopolitical interests and asymmetries of power, with Russia remaining reluctant to fully acknowledge China’s geopolitical rise.
  • Actions by the United States to pressure both Russia and China have the effect of pushing the two countries closer together. To prevent a closer partnership, the United States should focus on creating areas of policy divergence between the two states.

Introduction

There is widespread consensus among scholars that, although Russia and China have been moving toward closer cooperation through the entire post-Soviet era, the trend has accelerated rapidly since 2014.1 The relationship was boosted by Russian leaders’ belief that Russia could survive its sudden confrontation with the West only by finding an alternative external partner. China was the obvious candidate because it had a suitably large economy, was not openly hostile to Russia, and was not planning to impose sanctions in response to the Ukraine crisis.

Since 2014, the bilateral relationship has been focused on increased military cooperation, closer economic ties, and an increase in coordination on responses to various issues in international politics. Although some advances have occurred in all three areas, military cooperation has advanced the most. As discussed in more detail later in this paper, Russia and China have institutionalized a comprehensive mechanism for military consultation, expanded military technical cooperation initiatives and military personnel exchanges, and expanded regular joint military exercises. In the diplomatic sphere, Russia and China have supported each other in various international organizations and worked to establish new international institutions that could act as alternatives to existing Western-dominated institutions.2

Although economic cooperation is the weakest aspect of the Russia-China alignment, it has progressed a great deal, particularly in the energy field. “China is eager to increase energy relations with Russian companies,… [while] Russian concern over its increased dependence on China in the East is deemed secondary to expanding Russia’s customer base beyond the still dominant European market.”3 At the same time, there have been limits to this cooperation, particularly in the economic and financial sectors outside of the energy sphere. China refused to help Russia overcome the effects of Western economic sanctions and bilateral trade and trade in national currencies has remained limited, with little diversification of trade and investments. On the political side, neither country has shown itself to be prepared to support the other’s geopolitical interests if doing so would hurt its own interests.4

This policy brief focuses primarily on strategic and military cooperation, where the two sides have made the greatest progress. After briefly discussing the prospects for a strategic partnership between Russia and China, I examine the progress in and remaining constraints on expanding bilateral military cooperation, outline three scenarios for future cooperation in this sphere, and conclude with a discussion of how the United States should respond.

Strategic Partnership?

As bilateral cooperation has progressed, analysts have increasingly examined whether the Russia-China relationship has reached a level of strategic partnership. The growing consensus is that it has.5 According to Alexander Korolev, the partnership is neither ad hoc nor temporary and provides clear benefits for both sides: “Through this partnership, Russia can gain access to more instruments for promoting its agenda of balancing the United States and enhancing its version of multi-polarity in Europe. China, in turn, receives Russia’s political backing and access to Russia’s energy resources and military technologies, which are essential assets for China in its growing tensions with the U.S. in Asia.”6  Some Russian scholars are even more optimistic about the trajectory of the relationship, suggesting that, over time, the two states might even develop an alliance.7

At the same time, there is a similar consensus forming that the current upward trend in Russia-China strategic cooperation should not be viewed as irreversible. In particular, scholars note that, should Russia’s challenge to the United States start to destabilize the international system, it may also jeopardize China’s peaceful rise. This would lead to a divergence in the countries’ interests and potentially cause a rift between the two powers to emerge.8 Some scholars argue that the geopolitical and economic factors that have hindered Russia’s past Asian pivots could have a similar effect again, although this is distinctly a minority position. One possibility proposed by analysts who hold this view is that a future leadership transition in Russia might result in a policy shift back toward a preference for closer relations with Europe, undermining the long-term prospects of Russia’s partnership with China.9

Central Asia represents one potential area of tension between Russia and China, because the two states have formulated competing regional influence projects for the region. As a result, some analysts believe that the two countries may be heading toward a strategic rivalry caused by China’s increasing desire to play a role in Central Asian security and by competition over energy export routes and trade connectivity in general.10 A more likely scenario, however, is that the two countries will maintain a division of responsibilities that allows them to continue to cooperate in the region, with Russia taking primary responsibility for security issues while China focuses on economic development.11

The global coronavirus pandemic initially introduced another source of tension into the Russia-China relationship, especially since Russia moved quickly in late January to close its borders with China. This move was seen by some observers as an indicator of a lack of trust in Chinese information, since China at the time was still making an effort to minimize the scope and threat of the epidemic. At the same time, the almost immediate decision to reopen the border to commercial traffic highlighted Russia’s dependence on Chinese goods.12 As it turned out, even this partial closure proved to be economically damaging, especially in the Russian Far East.13 However, any residual tension was overcome once China largely ended community spread of the virus. Once the threat of spread was over, the two countries developed complementary information campaigns designed to highlight their mutual assistance in the crisis and the superiority of authoritarian systems over democratic ones in marshalling resources to fight the pandemic.14

Future of Bilateral Military Cooperation

Russian senior officials have highlighted the special nature of Russia’s defense relationship with China by characterizing the ties in terms of a strategic partnership. As the two countries have expanded the number of military exercises and consultations while deepening military technical cooperation, analysts have suggested a growing alignment between the two countries at a political level that allows for stronger defense ties. This does not mean that Russia and China are about to enter a military alliance. As cogently argued by Michael Kofman, Russian and Chinese leaders have labeled the relationship a strategic alliance because a military alliance is not needed, given that the two countries do not need each other for security guarantees or extended nuclear deterrence. That said, they have sought to make their ties more formal, as shown by the 2017 agreement on a three-year road map to establish a legal framework to govern military cooperation. This framework is expected to be completed and signed later in 2020, further codifying various aspects of defense ties, including the option of conducting joint long-range aviation patrols.15

Military Technical Cooperation

Although China was Russia’s leading client for military hardware in the 1990s and early 2000s, the arms sales relationship sharply declined after 2006 because of a combination of Chinese unhappiness with Russian pricing policies and the poor maintenance record of Russian equipment, as well as Russian concerns about China’s tendency to reverse-engineer Russian equipment for both its own use and export abroad. Russian arms sales to China saw a modest revival post-2011 but expanded most substantially after the Ukraine crisis, with agreements for the sale of S-400 air defense systems and Su-35 combat aircraft signaling the end of Russia’s informal ban on sales of advanced weapon systems to China.16 In October 2019, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was helping China develop its own ballistic missile early warning system. Russia’s new willingness to share information related to strategic nuclear weapons highlights the extent to which old sensitivities about sharing advanced military technology with China has dissipated in recent years.17 Russia has also turned to China for electronic components and naval diesel engines that it could no longer obtain from the West. Most significantly, military cooperation and defense ties improved as defense sales declined, making clear that such ties are driven at the senior political level and not tied to arms sales.

However, Russia faces a difficult choice this decade in either providing advanced technology to China, knowing that the technology will most likely be copied, or forgoing arms sales but with the expectation that China’s defense sector will develop comparable systems in the near future. The previous Russian arms export strategy of selling the “second-best” technology available while staying a generation ahead is no longer viable. China’s defense industry has sufficiently caught up with or worked around Russia via defense-cooperation deals with other countries that it is now only interested in the most-advanced Russian weapons available. China’s advances in weapon design and general goal of self-sufficiency in military production suggest that Russian arms sales will never reach the peak achieved in the early 2000s and that China will emerge as a stronger arms market competitor to Russia over time.

Military Exercises

Military exercises are a central pillar of bilateral military relations. Moscow and Beijing have recently been rapidly expanding the scale and pace of their joint exercise activity far beyond the two traditional programs, the Peace Mission ground forces exercises in Central Asia and the Joint Sea naval exercises. Both of the long-standing exercise programs have had an anti-U.S. character, with gradually increasing levels of complexity and joint activity. However, the exercises have been criticized for being overly scripted and poorly coordinated, as well as for continuing to lack a joint command structure.18 These criticisms are not necessarily warranted, as the purposes of the exercises are primarily to build military ties at the senior level and to signal political intentions rather than to establish interoperability. There has been no evidence that Russia and China intend to operate in a joint command structure; such a structure would not make sense for two countries that have not entered a formal military alliance.

The naval exercises between Russia and China have been more effective in terms of providing realistic operational experience, although they have not focused particularly on interoperability between the two navies. Naval exercises are not only becoming more frequent but also are being held in new geographical areas. Before the Ukraine crisis, Russia refused to hold bilateral exercises in such controversial territories as southern China near Taiwan. Since 2015, however, naval exercises have been held in areas such as the Baltic and South China Seas as a way of signaling the two countries’ growing power, expanding military ties, and mutual displeasure with the United States.19 Recent trilateral exercises with Iran represent another example of this steady expansion in the use of exercises for political signaling, now including third nations.20 Given China’s desire to be more visible in the European maritime theater, one can expect an increase in exercises that serve the Chinese desire to show its flag in distant waters.

Since 2015, the two countries have expanded their repertoire of exercises, including adding joint missile defense exercises in response to the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Most observers are aware of growing Chinese participation in Russian strategic exercises, including Vostok-2018 and Tsentr-2019. A joint Russian-Chinese bomber patrol in July 2019 demonstrated that Moscow is increasingly willing to disregard the interests of other states in the Asia-Pacific region in its pursuit of a closer military relationship with China.21

These exercises are primarily focused on setting a positive tone for military-to-military ties at the highest levels, rather than increasing interoperability at the tactical level. The exercises suggest that Russian-Chinese military cooperation in the air domain, which lags naval exercises, will increase. Stronger participation of Chinese air assets in Tsentr-2019 further substantiates this observed trend.22 Space is the next likely frontier for expanding cooperation, although it may be limited given sensitivities about the technologies involved in this domain.

Limitations on Bilateral Military Cooperation

Despite steady progress over the past decade, there remain significant geopolitical and technical constraints on military cooperation between Russia and China. Although senior Chinese and Russian officials repeatedly and publicly affirm that their relationship is characterized by great trust, in reality, a lack of mutual trust remains an obstacle to more robust cooperation. Although Russia and China formally settled the last of their border disputes in 2008, there are still regions where the two sides’ geopolitical interests may not align in the long term. Russia remains concerned over potential Chinese encroachment into the Russian Far East. Russia’s concerns are fueled by a combination of past Chinese claims to territory Russia annexed in the 1800s and the contrast between the sparsely populated Russian Far East and the densely populated Chinese border regions, which have generated ongoing Chinese immigration. A military incursion is seen as unlikely by Moscow relative to the more insidious problem of what Russian leaders fear could prove to be (1) a creeping annexation, in which China projects influence into parts of the Russian Far East on a de facto basis through a large influx of illegal Chinese immigrants, and (2) a steady reorientation of the Russian Far East toward more economically attractive Chinese markets and away from the distant center of power in Moscow.

As the relative balance of influence in Central Asia continues to shift more in favor of China, the potential for the two sides to clash over interests in the region remains significant. Beijing has steadily supplanted Russia as the principal economic power in Central Asia in terms of investment and lending. Still, countries in the region continue to look primarily to Russia to defend their security interests; additionally, Russia remains the principal labor market for this region.

Thus far, this de facto division of labor has enabled Russia and China to maintain a reasonably stable working relationship in Central Asia, such that they do not step on each other’s vital national interests or security concerns. However, as China’s Belt and Road Initiative develops, its economic footprint in Central Asia is likely to grow larger, which could lead to tensions between Beijing and Moscow.

Russia has sought to play a key role in the development of the Arctic region; in particular, it plans to capitalize on new energy sources, as well as the opening of the Northern Sea Route. While Moscow has been willing to work with other members of the Arctic Council, Russia has been reluctant to allow non-Arctic powers, such as China, to play a major role in the region. By contrast, a resource-hungry China has plans to extend its presence to the Arctic and is building its first domestically-produced icebreaker. Although none of these geopolitical concerns are currently likely to cause tensions that could limit military cooperation between Russia and China, they could be factors in the long term.

The asymmetry in economic power between the two countries, including their potential regional influence and global heft, has grown more visible. Furthermore, Russian strategic culture, long having seen itself as superior to China, is visibly struggling with the new realities of this power balance. As a result, Russian political elites have yet to come to terms with China’s rise. Finally, both countries are deeply nationalistic and prestige-seeking, which means neither would be particularly willing to subordinate its military to the leadership of the other. Russian leaders’ desire to maintain an independent foreign policy means that they will not accept Chinese leadership or impose limitations on their relationships with other countries for the sake of Chinese foreign policy. Although the two countries seek to manage conflict over core interests, most international competition is seen as fair game, whether it is arms sales or foreign direct investment.

Russia and China have placed a low priority on achieving greater interoperability during joint military exercises, reflecting an enduring lack of interest on the part of both sides in developing the kind of integrated military capability needed to conduct effective joint military operations.23 At the tactical level, issues such as language and communication highlight that these are decidedly different military structures, with different planning processes and organizational cultures. This limits what the Chinese are able to learn from their counterparts.

China is seen as a predatory power by many Russian experts, so there is a natural degree of apprehension among the Russian military. General Staffs plan contingencies around capabilities, because intent can change. This is especially so when dealing with another great power that is self-admittedly revisionist in its ambitions. Despite the positive outlook of Russia’s national leadership on the benefits of a growing Sino-Russian alignment, the military establishment will always see the Chinese military as a potential adversary and plan accordingly.

Scenarios for Future Russia-China Military Cooperation

The impact of various scenarios for the development of Russia-China military cooperation on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region is inversely correlated with their likelihood. That is, the most likely scenarios are relatively low impact, while the highest-impact scenarios are very unlikely to develop. In this section, I outline three scenarios for future military cooperation between Russia and China.

Low Impact, High Probability

In a low-impact, high-probability scenario, Russia and China expand their military cooperation by holding additional joint naval exercises with countries that are seen as adversarial to the United States and expanding the visibility of their maritime presence both in the Pacific and the Mediterranean regions. As noted earlier, previous joint naval exercises have been conducted in the South China Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Baltic Sea, and future theaters could include other areas within the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Expanded exercises in these regions would serve the two countries’ respective purposes, as Russia seeks greater visibility in the Asia-Pacific and China seeks greater visibility in the European maritime theater.

Both countries seek to reciprocate U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations to the extent possible by visiting the Western Hemisphere. Russia and China could agree to hold a naval exercise in the Caribbean Sea, hosted by Venezuela or Cuba. Such an exercise would have little long-term impact on either Russia’s or China’s geopolitical influence in Latin America and it would not do much to improve their military capabilities or naval interoperability. It would, however, generate a great deal of media attention, highlighting the countries’ ostensible global reach and potential strategic partnership. In other words, both countries could feel that they had scored a propaganda win at relatively low cost, but the actual impact on regional security would be negligible.

Medium Impact, Medium Probability

A medium-impact, medium-probability scenario might focus on additional sales of Russian advanced military equipment. The most interesting systems for China would include diesel-electric submarines, over-the-horizon radar systems, early warning systems, space-related technology for satellites, microchips, and next-generation aircraft engines. In return, Russia might accelerate the purchase of Chinese defense-industrial components, such as heavy-lift cranes, machine tools, and circuitry board components and parts. Although Russia would benefit substantially from procuring Chinese surface combatant vessels, given the shortcomings in those parts of the Russian defense-industrial complex, the financial interests of Russia’s domestic defense industry would likely prevent such deals from being made.

The two countries could also build on Russia’s recent sale to China of S-400 long-range air defense systems to agree to the sale of Russian S-500 air defense systems once those come online. S-500 systems would have a longer range than existing systems owned by China and may have the capability of defending against a wider range of missile types. These capabilities would lead to a significant improvement in Chinese air defense capabilities versus the United States and its allies. China would seek to acquire the 40N6 extended-range (400-km) missile, which has reached initial operating capability with the S-400, either as part of an S-500 deal or on its own for China’s existing S-400 systems.

High Impact, Low Probability

A number of highly unlikely but potentially very damaging scenarios present themselves. One such area would involve greater Russian-Chinese defense industrial cooperation on sensitive technology, such as theater hypersonic weapons or submarine quieting. Although military establishments on both sides would almost certainly resist allowing the other side access to such technology, if such cooperation did develop, it would substantially affect the ability of the United States to maintain a favorable regional military balance and retain a technological edge in certain domains over China. One possibility for enhanced defense cooperation that has been discussed in recent years, though with little progress to date, is a potential technology transfer deal in which Moscow would provide Beijing with the RD-180 rocket engine in exchange for space-grade microelectronic components.24 Past discussion centered on trading finished equipment, but a  closer relationship between Russia and China may result in consideration of exchanging production technology in the future. Such a deal would increase China’s lift capacity and Russia’s ability to produce advanced guidance and control systems.

Another scenario in this category is a joint military intervention, most likely in a Central Asian country in the event of a political crisis or instability, because Russia and China have previously conducted exercises to deconflict areas of responsibility in this type of scenario. However, one should not exclude the possibility of a joint Russian-Chinese intervention in Africa or the Middle East. While the countries lack core interests in these regions, the cost and risk of intervention is also dramatically lower and the barrier for entry in such operations is not especially high. Both countries have the expeditionary capacity to conduct relatively small force deployments around much of the world and might well seek to do so together in response to a contingency where their interests align.

The least likely, but nonetheless possible, scenario is a military crisis with the United States in which one country takes advantage of a situation to press for geopolitical gains. For example, in the event of a standoff between the United States and China, Russia would seek to leverage the distraction of the United States to make opportunistic gains. Russia could deploy forces to Asia or provide military assistance via deniable means to China in order to raise costs to the United States. Because China is quite remote from Europe, the likelihood of Chinese involvement in a crisis between Russia and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe is too low to be worth considering.

How Should the United States Respond?

There is a general perception among experts that greater cooperation between Russia and China is inevitable, given the core precepts of present-day U.S. foreign policy. Scholars focused on relative power suggest that the two countries will inevitably balance against the most powerful country in the international system.25 Furthermore, U.S. efforts to pursue a hard line against either Russia or China, and especially against both at the same time, have the effect of driving the two countries closer together. For some scholars, this suggests that accommodating them within the existing international order would be a more effective response.26 Scholars focused on the role played by ideas highlight the perceived threat of liberal ideology and suggest that if the United States reduces its emphasis on democracy promotion and regime change, this would reduce the impetus to Russian-Chinese cooperation.27

In this geopolitical environment, actions by the United States that threaten Russia and China in a similar manner or present a common security challenge will have the effect of driving the two countries closer together. This is especially true if the actions are strategic in nature. Examples of such actions include the deployment of missile defense systems or freedom-of-navigation operations near the shores of either Russia or China. Both of these actions create a perception among Russian and Chinese leaders that they share a common global security challenge from the United States—and one that is serious enough that they would be best served by facing it together.

On the other hand, actions that disaggregate the nature of the threat perceived by Russian and Chinese leaders would help create divergence in their interests and thereby slow the trend toward a closer bilateral relationship. For example, the United States could challenge Russia in ways that are exclusive to the European theater, such as by pulsing additional troops to NATO member states for exercises. Similarly, China could be challenged in the regions of Taiwan and Southeast Asia rather than in East Asia or maritime territories adjacent to Russian territory. Russian relations with such countries as Vietnam and India could be exploited to highlight potential tensions between Russia and China.

Notes

1 Alexander Gabuev, Friends with Benefits? Russian-Chinese Relations After the Ukraine Crisis, Carnegie Moscow Center, June 29 2016, https://carnegie.ru/2016/06/29/friends-with-benefits-russian-chinese-relations-after-ukraine-crisis-pub-63953.

2  Alexander Korolev, “How Closely Aligned Are China and Russia? Measuring Strategic Cooperation in IR,” International Politics, May 2019.

3 Tom Røseth, “Russia’s Energy Relations with China: Passing the Strategic Threshold?” Eurasian Geography and Economics, Vol. 58, No. 1, 2017, pp. 23–55.

4 Mikhail Korostikov, Дружба на расстоянии руки: Как Москва и Пекин определили границы допустимого [“Friendship at Arms’ Length: How Moscow and Beijing Determined the Boundaries of the Permissible”], Kommersant, May 31, 2019, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3984186.

5 Tom Røseth, “Moscow’s Response to a Rising China: Russia’s Partnership Policies in Its Military Relations with Beijing,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 66, No. 4, 2019, pp. 268–286.

6 Korolev, 2019, p. 29.

7 Vassily Kashin, “Is the Conflict Inevitable? Not at All. How Reasonable Are Western Expectations of a Russia-China Confrontation?” Russia in Global Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2017

8 Andrej Krickovic, “The Symbiotic China-Russia Partnership: Cautious Riser and Desperate Challenger,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2017, pp. 299–329.

9 Chris Miller, “Will Russia’s Pivot to Asia Last?” Orbis, Winter 2020. See also Mikhail Karpov, “The Grandeur and Miseries of Russia’s ‘Turn to the East’: Russian-Chinese ‘Strategic Partnership’ in the Wake of the Ukraine Crisis and Western Sanctions,” Russia in Global Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2018.

10 Carla P. Freeman, “New Strategies for an Old Rivalry? China–Russia Relations in Central Asia After the Energy Boom,” Pacific Review, Vol. 31, No. 5, 2018, pp. 635–654.

11 Liselotte Odgaard, “Beijing’s Quest for Stability in Its Neighborhood: China’s Relations with Russia in Central Asia,” Asian Security, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2017, pp. 41–58.

12 Jake Rudnitsky and Evgenia Pismennaya, “Russia Closes Border With China to People, Not Goods,” Bloomberg News, January 30, 2020,  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-30/russia-closing-border-with-china-to-affect-people-not-goods.

13 Andrew Higgins, “Businesses Getting Killed on Russian Border as Coronavirus Fears Rise,” New York Times, February 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/world/europe/coronavirus-russia-china-commerce.html.

14 Van Ivej, “Выход из Кризиса и Преимущества Китая, [Exit from Crisis and China’s Advantages],” Russia in Global Affairs, April 1, 2020, https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/vyhod-iz-krizisa-i-preimushhestva-kitaya/; Fyodor Lukyanov, “Вирус Разнообразия [Virus of Diversity],” Russia in Global Affairs, March 25, 2020, https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/virus-raznoobraziya/.

15 Michael Kofman, “Towards a Sino-Russian Entente?” Riddle, November 29, 2019, https://www.ridl.io/en/towards-a-sino-russian-entente.

16 Siemon Wezeman, “China, Russia and the Shifting Landscape of Arms Sales,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, July 5, 2017, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/topical-backgrounder/2017/china-russia-and-shifting-landscape-arms-sales.

17 Dmitry Stefanovich, “Russia to Help China Develop an Early Warning System,” The Diplomat, October 25, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/10/russia-to-help-china-develop-an-early-warning-system.

18 Daniel Urchik, “What We Learned from Peace Mission 2018,” Small Wars Journalundated, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/what-we-learned-peace-mission-2018.

19 Chris Buckley, “Russia to Join China in Naval Exercise in Disputed South China Sea,” New York Times, July 29, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/29/world/asia/russia-china-south-china-sea-naval-exercise.html and Andrew Higgins, “China and Russia Hold First Joint Naval Drill in the Baltic Sea,” New York Times, July 25, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/world/europe/china-russia-baltic-navy-exercises.html.

20 Andrew Osborn, “Russia, China, Iran Start Joint Naval Drills in Indian Ocean,” ReutersDecember 27, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-military-russia-china/russia-china-iran-start-joint-naval-drills-in-indian-ocean-idUSKBN1YV0IB.

21 Franz-Stefan Gady, “The Significance of the First Ever China-Russia Strategic Bomber Patrol,” The Diplomat, July 25, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/the-significance-of-the-first-ever-china-russia-strategic-bomber-patrol/.

22 “China to Send 1,600 Troops, About 30 Aircraft to Russia’s Strategic Military Drills,” TASS, August 29, 2019, https://tass.com/defense/1075535.

23 Paul Schwartz, “The Military Dimension in Sino-Russian Relations,” in Jo Inge Bekkevold and Bobo Lo, eds. Sino-Russian Relations in the 21st Century, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), p. 105.

24 Eric Berger, “Russia Now Looking to Sell Its Prized Rocket Engines to China,” Ars Technica, January 18, 2018, https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/01/russia-now-looking-to-sell-its-prized-rocket-engines-to-china.

25 Robert S. Ross, “Sino‑Russian Relations: The False Promise of Russian Balancing,” International Politics, September 2019.

26 Krickovic, 2017.

27 John M. Owen IV, “Sino‑Russian Cooperation Against Liberal Hegemony,” International Politics, January 2020.

The Political Elite Under Putin

Here’s my latest policy brief from the series on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on stability in Russia’s political elite during Vladimir Putin’s rule. As with the previous ones, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the newly updated Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.


Executive Summary

  • Russia’s political elite has undergone relatively little change under Vladimir Putin’s rule. Only sixty people have been ranked twentieth or higher at least once between 2000 and 2019 in the annual Nezavisimaya Gazeta list of the most politically influential Russians. Eighteen people have appeared on every list during this period. The greatest shift in elite composition occurred between 2007 and 2008, with smaller shifts around the presidential elections of 2004 and 2012.
  • Most of the political elite originate in the government bureaucracy in Moscow or St. Petersburg or came to their positions of influence through personal ties to Vladimir Putin, either in St. Petersburg or in the security services. Only ten percent came to power through electoral politics; another ten percent are businessmen who made their money independently of any connections to Vladimir Putin.
  • The elite is fairly evenly divided between individuals who have political influence solely because of their positions in government and individuals who have influence outside of their official role. People in the first group generally drop off the list quickly after leaving government or being demoted, and people in the second group tend to retain influence regardless of their position at any given time and remain influential for extended periods, even after departing government service.

Introduction

For most of the post-Soviet period, the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta has conducted a monthly survey of Russian political experts. This survey asks its respondents to rank the 100 most politically influential Russians in the previous month. Throughout this period, the newspaper has also published an annual ranking,1 based on the average rank of those mentioned during the previous calendar year. These data can be used to identify the most politically influential members of the Russian elite during the twenty years of Vladimir Putin’s rule.2

Characteristics of the Data Set

The dataset used includes all individuals identified in Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s survey who ranked at least twentieth at some point during the period from 2000 to 2019. Since the annual rankings run through 2019, they do not include changes in elite composition resulting from the government reshuffle that took place in January 2020. Such changes will be reflected in the next annual ranking, which is expected to be published in early 2021. This group is composed of just sixty individuals. Although most of those named are politicians or senior government officials, eight are well-connected businessmen or executives of state corporations. Only six individuals came to power through electoral politics. Two are religious leaders. Only three are women. Almost all built their careers in Moscow or St. Petersburg, with only three originally coming from the regions.

The dataset shows each individual’s average annual ranking if they were in the top 100 that year. In the graphs below, gaps indicate periods when the individual in question fell out of the top 100. The primary characteristic of the list is the extraordinary longevity of the people on it. Eighteen people have appeared in the top 100 every year from 2000 through 2019. Nine of them also appeared in the 1999 list, indicating that their political careers extend at least to the late Yeltsin period.3 Only four people have returned to the top 100 after spending more than a year off the list.

Members of the Putin-era political elite can be characterized in various ways. Many analysts have divided them according to their background, as having emerged from the security services or from Vladimir Putin’s circles in St. Petersburg or from private businesses established in the 1990s.4 Others have divided them according to the nature of their position.5 These are very useful ways to categorize, therefore both background and position are mentioned in the discussion below. However, I take a different starting point and categorize the elite on the basis of when they attracted the notice of expert analysts of the Russian political scene as being influential in that scene. This undoubtedly creates some artifacts. Some individuals undoubtedly flew under the radar for some period of time before attracting the notice of experts. Most importantly, individuals who may be influential advisors to senior leaders but stay in the shadows may be undervalued or missed entirely. Nevertheless, given that the main goal of this study is to examine elite stability and change, a primary focus on the chronology of the subjects’ appearance on the scene is more appropriate than one that puts the main focus on the subjects’ background or role in the political system.

Survivors of the Yeltsin Era

Ten members of the political elite can be characterized as long-term survivors of the Yeltsin era. These are individuals who have appeared on the list since at least 1999, which is the earliest year for which data is currently available. Strikingly, half of the group is still considered among the top thirty most politically influential people in Russia in 2019, twenty years later. This group of Council and former Governor of St. Petersburg Valentina Matvienko; and current Presidential Envoy of to the North Caucasus region and former Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika. With the exception of Putin and Matvienko, these are people who have made careers as appointed senior officials rather than elected politicians.

Yeltsin-Era Survivors graph
The group of survivors also includes a number of people who have made their careers primarily in the business world, including such prominent oligarchs as Roman Abramovich and Vagit Alekperov. Vladimir Potanin is also included in the graphic as an oligarch known for his ability to maneuver through changes in Russia’s political scene and remain influential, although he is not part of the dataset, having never reached the top twenty in influence in any year measured. Although Anatolii Chubais was a prominent government official earlier in his career, during the period being analyzed here he has made his career in the world of state corporations, first as head of Russia’s electricity monopoly and then as head of the Rosnanotech state corporation. All four of these individuals have seen a decline in their influence in recent years, reflecting a general decline in influence among oligarchs in favor of bureaucratic officials.

The two other members of this group deserve a brief mention. Aleksandr Zhukov is a survivor who has played a variety of roles in government, including as a leading member of the State Duma, as the head of the Russian Olympic committee that organized the Sochi Winter Olympics, and as a deputy prime minister. Like the oligarchs, his influence has declined sharply in recent years. Finally, there is the case of Aleksandr Voloshin. Throughout Putin’s first term as President, Voloshin was the head of the presidential administration and considered one of the most powerful people in Russia. More interestingly, unlike other holdovers from the Yeltsin team described in the following section, he has consistently remained on the list of politically influential Russians since his resignation in 2003, albeit in relatively low positions.

Yeltsin-Era Politicians Who Did Not Last

A second group of members of the political elite were also survivors of the Yeltsin era, but have not retained their influence. These nine individuals are a fairly diverse group. Five of the nine were senior officials in the central government who stepped down at various points between 2001 and 2011 and thereafter disappeared from political life in Russia. These include Viktor Gerashchenko, who headed the Russian Central Bank until 2002; Aleksandr Veshniakov, who headed Russia’s Central Election Commission until 2007; and Mikhail Kasianov, who served as prime minister during Putin’s first term as president. There are also two former government ministers: Mikhail Zurabov, who headed the pension fund from 1999 to 2004 and was thereafter health minister until 2007 and Viktor Khristenko, who was deputy prime minister in both Yeltsin’s last year as president and in Putin’s first term and thereafter the minister of industry until 2012.

Yeltsin-Era Figures Who Did Not Last.

The other four members of this group can be described as more eclectic. Aleksei II’s influence came from his position as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. As we will see below, after his death in 2008, his successor retained a roughly similar level of influence. Yuri Luzhkov rapidly lost influence after his removal from his post as mayor of Moscow in 2010. The two businessmen in this group had very different trajectories. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was, for a time, the most influential private businessman in Russia and remained influential even after his arrest in 2003, but he disappears from the list after his trial and imprisonment in 2005. Finally, Mikhail Fridman is somewhat different from the rest of this group. He is a businessman whose influence has gradually faded over time. In this, he is most similar to Vladimir Potanin in the previous group (the “survivors”), with the main difference being that the degree of his fade has taken him out of not only the top twenty, but the top 100, in recent years. Other than Fridman, the members of this group are all notable for having derived their influence from their positions, rather than their personal power. Unlike several people in the survivor group, their influence did not outlast their dismissal from their government positions.

Putin’s Original Team

When Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president in 2000, he quickly installed his own team of loyalists. With only one exception, these twelve individuals who first appeared on the list in 2000 have remained highly influential players in Russian politics over the next twenty years. The majority of the team are connected to Putin, either through their work in the security services or from Putin’s time working in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office in the 1990s.

The security service contingent includes Sergei Ivanov, Igor Sechin, Nikolai Patrushev, and Vladimir Ustinov. The first three people on this list have been among the core members of Putin’s inner circle throughout his time in power. One key difference when compared with the group of individuals that did not last is that the security service contingent’s influence has remained high regardless of the various positions they have held. Thus, Igor Sechin has variously served as deputy head of the presidential administration, deputy prime minister (while Putin was prime minister), and head of the Rosneft state oil corporation. His influence did not decrease when he departed from his government position in 2012 and he remains one of the ten most politically influential people in Russia to the present day.

Similarly, Nikolai Patrushev has been highly influential, both as FSB director and as secretary of the Security Council, despite the latter organization’s relatively limited formal power. Sergei Ivanov was highly influential first as defense minister, then as deputy prime minister, and finally as head of the presidential administration. His influence has faded in the last three years after his departure from the presidential administration, but the fact that he remains on the list despite having virtually no significant official role in Russian politics speaks to his personal connection to the president. Vladimir Ustinov is a somewhat different case. Although he played a powerful role in Russian politics while serving as prosecutor general, his removal from that position in 2006 was interpreted as a political defeat and resulted in a sharp decline in his perceived influence, even while he was still serving as Minister of Justice. After his dismissal from that position in 2008 and his transfer to the role of presidential representative to the Southern Federal District, he disappeared from the rankings entirely.

The St. Petersburg team includes Dmitry Medvedev, Aleksei Kudrin, German Gref, Dmitry Kozak, and Boris Gryzlov. These are also figures who have exhibited political influence regardless of the position they held. Medvedev served variously as deputy head and then head of the presidential administration, first deputy prime minister, president, and prime minister, retaining a position among the ten most influential Russian political figures since his appointment as head of the presidential administration in late 2003. Gref and Kudrin survived their departures from positions as minister for economic development and trade and minister of finance, respectively. Gref has retained influence in his role as head of Sberbank, while Kudrin remained highly influential despite having no major government or business position from 2011 until his appointment as head of the Accounts Chamber in 2018. Boris Gryzlov was highly influential as minister of internal affairs and as speaker of the State Duma, but disappeared from the list after stepping down as speaker in 2011. He returned in 2017, however, despite having a fairly low-level position as the president’s representative to the contact group on the Ukraine conflict.

Putin's Original Team

Dmitry Kozak has held a wide variety of positions over the last twenty years, both in Moscow and in the regions, while remaining highly influential. His peak of influence was in Putin’s first two terms in office, when he held senior positions in the presidential administration and as presidential representative to the Southern Federal District. Note that his high level of influence in the latter position contrasts with the case of Vladimir Ustinov, who dropped off the influence list after replacing Kozak in this position. This strongly suggests that Kozak’s influence during this period was related to his personal connections, rather than the office he held.

Three other members of the team are not connected to Putin through prior service. Vladislav Surkov and Aleksei Gromov were already working in the central government in the 1990s but first rose to positions of prominence under Putin. Surkov served in the presidential administration until 2011, then briefly as head of the government executive office before becoming a personal advisor to Putin. Although his influence declined in the latter position and he is likely to drop out of the rankings entirely in 2020 after his very public resignation in February, he remained on the list throughout the period of the study. Gromov was the president’s press secretary in his first two terms, followed by twelve years in the presidential administration as deputy and first deputy chief of staff. His influence has steadily increased over the years, especially once he moved into the presidential administration. Finally, Oleg Deripaska is an outlier among this group, as his role is in business rather than government. Although he is linked more closely to Putin than some of the businessmen who appeared in the other groups, his influence has declined in the last decade as power has shifted away from people in business and toward government officials.

People Who Became Influential During Putin’s First Term

Individuals who joined the list of politically influential figures between 2001 and 2004 fall into very similar categories as Putin’s original team. Once again, the majority are figures whose background is in the security services or in the St. Petersburg government, while a few rose through other channels. Unlike Putin’s original team, few of these individuals have the political capital to have influence separate from their positions.

Siloviki, political figures who rose to power in the security services, such as Mikhail Fradkov, Rashid Nurgaliev, and Viktor Ivanov, are good examples of this tendency. Fradkov, for example, appeared in relatively low positions on the list as head of the tax police in 2001 and 2002, then disappeared from the list entirely while serving as Russia’s representative to the European Union in 2003. He then spent four years as one of the most politically influential people in Russia while serving as prime minister, before again disappearing from the list entirely after losing that position. He returned to the list in 2013 while serving as head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, but disappeared after being dismissed from that position in 2016. Similarly, Rashid Nurgaliev was highly influential while serving as minister of internal affairs from 2004 to 2011, but disappeared from the list immediately after stepping down from that position. Viktor Ivanov spent several years as an assistant to President Putin and then several more as director of the Federal Narcotics Service. He disappeared from the list after being dismissed from the latter position in early 2016.

The political figures who came out of St. Petersburg are a relatively diverse group. Among them are two who have remained on the list throughout the period since their initial appearance in 2001–2002. Sergei Mironov served for many years as the speaker of the Federation Council, although he retained a certain amount of influence after moving to the State Duma in 2012. Aleksei Miller has remained among the twenty-five most politically influential Russians continuously since 2003 while serving as the head of Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas monopoly. Vladimir Iakunin was on the list only during the period from 2005 to 2015, when he headed the Russian Railroad state corporation. His immediate disappearance after his departure from that position in 2015 suggests that his influence derived from his position, rather than his personal power. Viktor Zubkov first made the list while running the Financial Monitoring Committee and reached higher positions on it, having served as prime minister and first deputy prime minister. He dropped off the list after losing the latter position in 2012.

Putin's First Term Additions.

The remaining four people in this group have had highly varied careers. Igor Shuvalov has served in a variety of roles in the government, including as the government’s chief of staff, as an assistant to the president, and as first deputy prime minister. He was most highly ranked on Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s list in the latter period, although he retained some influence even after departing that position in 2018. Aleksandr Khloponin is one of the few people on the overall list who appeared on the list while holding a position outside of Moscow. He was, for many years, the governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai and then served as deputy prime minister. The peak of his influence was in the period 2010–2014, when he concurrently served as deputy prime minister and presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District. Even during this period, his highest position in the survey was twentieth in 2010, highlighting the extent to which Moscowbased political figures dominate the rankings.

Dmitry Rogozin first came to prominence as one of the few elected national-level politicians on this list. He was one of the leaders of the right-wing Rodina party until 2005 and was thus one of the few influential politicians with an independent power base. However, he dropped off the list after departing the party due to conflicts with other leaders. He returned to a position of influence in 2012 after being appointed deputy prime minister in charge of the defense and space industries. Finally, Sergei Pugachev is unique, in that he only appeared on the list for two years, but in very high positions. He was a businessman with close ties to Putin, but quickly fell out of favor after refusing to reinvest his capital in Russia. He has since renounced his Russian citizenship and now lives in France.

People Who Became Influential During Putin’s Second Term

A fairly large group—thirteen people—became politically influential during Putin’s second term. Although a few of these people appeared on the list early in the term, most joined or rose to high rankings in 2007 or 2008. Individuals who joined the political elite during this period fall into two major categories, with a few outliers.

Five people in this set had close ties with Putin, mostly dating to their schooling in the 1970s and 1980s or through working together in the security services in the 1980s and 1990s. All five of these individuals rose to highly influential positions at around the same time and have remained near the top of the list throughout Putin’s presidency. Aleksandr Bastrykin was a university classmate of Putin. He worked at the Ministry of Justice and in the Prosecutor-General’s office before being appointed in 2007 as head of the Investigative Committee (IC), an anti-corruption agency within the Prosecutor-General’s office. His influence increased further in 2011, when the IC became an independent agency directly subordinate to the president.

Sergei Naryshkin has served in a variety of roles over the years, including chief of staff to the prime minister, deputy prime minister, head of the presidential administration, chair of the State Duma and, most recently, director of the Foreign Intelligence Service. His influence has always come less from his position and more from his close ties to Vladimir Putin, whom he has known since the early 1980s, when they studied together in the Soviet security service (KGB) schools in Leningrad. He was perceived as having been appointed head of the presidential administration under Dmitry Medvedev in order to ensure Medvedev’s loyalty to Putin.6 Aleksandr Bortnikov spent his entire career in the KGB or its successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), primarily in the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) office. He was appointed deputy director of the FSB in 2004 and became its head in 2008. Although all three are influential because of their positions, they achieved these positions through a combination of their previous work and their connections to Vladimir Putin.

On the other hand, Sergei Chemezov and Yuri Kovalchuk have attained their positions almost entirely through their connections to Putin. Chemezov worked with Putin in the KGB in East Germany in the 1980s and again in the Presidential Property Office in Moscow in the late 1990s. Since Putin became president, Chemezov has held senior positions in a variety of state corporations, beginning with Rosoboronexport (the state defense export company) and since 2007 as general director of Rostec, which, under his leadership, has become the dominant player in Russia’s defense industry. Although Yuri Kovalchuk did not go to school or work with Putin, he has had close ties to the president dating back to the 1990s. Like Chemezov, he has never worked in the Russian government, having instead used his personal ties to Putin to amass a large fortune as the head of Bank Rossiia, a position that has led him to be labeled as “Putin’s personal banker.” 

A second set of five people rose to political influence by rising through the ranks of their agencies. Sergei Lavrov is perhaps the archetype of this figure. He has served as foreign minister since 2004, having previously served as a deputy foreign minister and as Russia’s representative to the United Nations. Although he was, for many years, described as someone who is a civil servant and chief implementer rather than a member of Putin’s inner circle, his longevity in his post has gradually translated into greater influence on decision-making. 

Putin's Second Term Additions.

Tatiana Golikova rose through the ranks of the Ministry of Finance, becoming Deputy Finance Minister in the late 1990s. She was then appointed as Minister of Health and Social Development in 2007, going from that role to the position of Chair of the Accounts Chamber in 2013 and then becoming Deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy in 2018. Similarly, Elvira Nabiullina rose through the ranks at the Ministry for Economic Development and Trade, becoming the head of the ministry in 2007. She has retained influence since transitioning to her current position as head of Russia’s Central Bank in 2013.

Arkady Dvorkovich rose through the Finance Ministry and the Ministry for Economic Development, having developed close ties to German Gref in the latter ministry. He first rose to prominence as then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s chief economic advisor and then as deputy prime minister once Medvedev assumed the position of Prime Minister in 2012. He dropped off the list of politically influential Russians after losing that position in 2018, and now serves as president of the World Chess Federation. Finally, Patriarch Kirill rose through the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church and headed the Church’s Department for External Church Relations from 1989 until his election as Patriarch in 2009, following Patriarch Aleksei’s death.

He first appeared on the list of influential people in 2007, when it became increasingly clear that he was likely to become the next patriarch, even as Aleksei’s health was declining. All five of these individuals are influential because of their positions, rather than through personal ties.

Only two members of this group attained their positions through the political process, both initially in regions outside of Moscow. Sergei Sobianin has had a long career in electoral politics at the regional level, first winning election in 1991 as mayor of a small town in Siberia, gradually rising to higher positions in the region, including a five-year stint as governor of Tiumen. He moved to Moscow in 2005 to serve as head of the presidential administration, and has remained a fixture in the top twenty most influential Russians since 2007. He has been the mayor of Moscow since 2010.

Viacheslav Volodin won his first election even earlier, serving on the Saratov city council beginning in 1990. He represented Saratov in the State Duma beginning in 1999, serving as the Duma’s deputy speaker. He succeeded Sobianin as head of the government executive office in 2010 and has remained on the top twenty list since then, serving as deputy head of the presidential administration and, since 2016, as chair of the State Duma.

Finally, Anatoly Serdiukov is unique among this group in that he achieved his influence by virtue of his ties to someone in the top elite other than Putin. He appears on the list in 2007, when he moved from his previous position as head of the Federal Tax Service to Defense Minister. He dropped off the list in 2012, when he was dismissed from that position. His appointment was linked to his connection to Viktor Zubkov, as he was married to Zubkov’s daughter. Despite constant criticism from members of the military, he remained in the position until his wife filed for divorce in 2012, at which point he was quickly accused of corruption and removed from his position.

People Who Became Influential in the Last 12 Years

Although much has been written about efforts by Russia’s senior leadership to renew Russia’s political elite, very few people have joined the ranks of the most influential Russians since 2008. In fact, only one person who joined the list while Dmitry Medvedev was president has become highly influential, while another four rose to top positions between Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 and the end of 2019. As we saw in the previous section, a few others appeared on the list earlier, but only became highly influential after 2012. The five people in this group come from a variety of backgrounds, though most share the characteristic of rising to positions of influence through the ranks of the organizations they now lead, rather than achieving that position through personal connections to Putin or members of Putin’s inner circle. Dmitry Peskov rose through the diplomatic service and then through the presidential press office before becoming Putin’s press secretary in 2008. Anton Siluanov rose through the finance ministry, replacing the previous minister in late 2011. Anton Vaino rose through the presidential administration and has headed it since 2016. Vladimir Kolokoltsev served in various positions in the interior ministry, followed by a term as the Moscow police commissioner, before being appointed to head the interior ministry in 2012. Viktor Zolotov is the one exception in this group because he has been personally close to Putin since serving as a bodyguard to St. Petersburg mayor Anatolii Sobchak in the 1990s. Although he only appeared on the list of influential Russians in 2016, he headed the presidential security service from the start of Putin’s tenure in 2000 until his appointment as head of the newly established National Guard in 2016. He thus serves as a good example of the type of individual who was missed by expert rankings because of his tendency to keep out of the limelight.

Putin's Recent Additions, SI#53

Inflection Points

Although Russia’s political elite has experienced relatively little change over the last twenty years, there have been a few key moments of substantial renewal, most immediately before or after presidential elections. After the initial introduction of Putin’s team in 2000–2001, an initial shift took place in 2003–2004. This was a period of consolidation, during which holdovers from the Yeltsin administration such as Kasyanov and Voloshin left their positions and the influence of independent businessmen was largely eliminated after the arrest of Khodorkovsky. These figures’ residual influence meant that they remained on the list, though in relatively low positions, for some time thereafter. However, starting at this point, all senior officials were either members of Putin’s circle or technocrats.

A much bigger elite transition took place in 2007, with the departure of Veshniakov, Fradkov, and Zurabov and the decline in influence of Chubais, Gref, Zhukov, and Viktor Ivanov. At the same time, a large number of new people appeared on the list, including Chemezov, Bortnikov, Bastrykin, Kovalchuk, Golikova, Nabiullina, Dvorkovich, and Serdiukov. In addition, Naryshkin, Zubkov, Iakunin, and Shuvalov, who had all been on the list previously, first attained high levels of influence in 2007 or 2008. These changes occurred as part of the transition to what became known as the “tandemocracy,” a period during which Medvedev served as president while Putin was prime minister.

There was a second major transition around the 2012 presidential election, with the departures of Zubkov, Gryzlov, Khristenko, Nurgaliev, and Serdiukov and the decline of Kudrin and Surkov. At the same time, Shoigu, Bastrykin, Volodin, and Peskov became highly influential for the first time while Siluanov, Rogozin, and Kolokoltsev either first appeared on the list or returned after a lengthy absence. This date marked the consolidation of the conservative turn in Russian politics, with security officials in the ascendance and economic modernizers relegated to secondary roles.

Putin’s third term was characterized largely by stability, with only a few significant shifts in influence. There were early signs of a generational shift, although few younger officials had yet reached positions of highest influence by the end of 2019, as highlighted by the dearth of people in the final group discussed above. Although a big government shakeup took place in January 2020, initial monthly polling suggests that this will result primarily in a reshuffling, with potentially limited impact on the composition of the top elite beyond the addition of the new prime minister. The shift to a new generation is coming, but the highest level still consists primarily of the people who have been with Putin since the early days of his rule. This will likely remain the case at least until the next presidential election in 2024.

Conclusion

The small number of people represented in the elite suggests a high level of elite continuity, which has allowed the regime to remain remarkably stable over a twenty-year period. Regime stability can be fleeting and authoritarian regimes, in particular, can shift from the appearance of eternal stability to collapse in a brief period. Nevertheless, the level of elite continuity in Putin’s Russia has allowed for relatively high level of policy consistency. While Putin’s team certainly has its share of tensions, everyone in his inner circle understands how the others operate.

The expert survey data clearly show that Russia’s Putin-era political elite includes two types of officials. Members of the first group have influence because of their roles or positions in government, while members of the second group have influence independently of their positions because of their ties to Vladimir Putin. Those in the second group tend to remain influential even when they are no longer in positions of power, while those in the first group drop out of the rankings as soon as they step down from their official role. This finding suggests that the number of people with real power may be even smaller than the sixty people represented in the data set, as only the second group has lasting influence at the highest levels. It also suggests that the members of the elite who were displaced in the government turnover of January 2020 will have different fates. People who have close ties to Putin, such as Dmitry Medvedev, will remain influential, while those who have had power because of their roles in government, such as Surkov, are likely to disappear.

Notes

1 The most recent annual rankings were published in Dmitri Orlov, “100 ведущих политиков России в 2019 году,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 1, 2020, http://www.ng.ru/ideas/2020-01-13/7_7766_people.html.

2 The question of how well an expert survey of this type reflects actual power dynamics in Russia is a valid one. Because the main goal of this study is to examine political influence, ratings by Russian experts on domestic politics are likely to be a fairly accurate representation, especially because the survey used a consistent methodology throughout the period under study.

3 “1999 год. 100 ведущих политиков России.” https://ru.telegram.one/CorruptionTV/1499.

4 Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Stephen White, “Putin’s Militocracy,” Post-Soviet Affairs, 19(4):289-306, 2003.

5 Tatiana Stanovaya, “Пять путинских элит на фоне транзита,” Carnegie Moscow Center, February 27, 2020. https://carnegie.ru/2020/02/27/ru-pub-81158.

6 Guy Faulconbridge, Michael Stott, “Medvedev’s Kremlin chiefs are Putin men,” Reuters, May 13, 2008. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-cabinet-kremlin/medvedevs-kremlin-chiefs-are-putin-men-idUSL1323497720080513.

Russian Foreign Policy Narratives

Here’s my latest policy brief from the series on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russian foreign policy narratives. As with the previous ones, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.

Most of the data collection for this policy brief was done by Katherine Baughman and Umida Hashimova. Thanks to Kasey Stricklin for putting together the trends graphic.


Executive Summary

  • This Marshall Center Security Insight provides a summary of a project that examined Russian foreign policy positions by analyzing statements made and interviews given by Russian government officials. The analysis found a set of ten narratives frequently used by officials discussing Russian foreign policy. In this policy brief, we describe each of the narratives and provide some recent examples of their use.
  • The narratives described in this brief include Russia as the center of a distinct Eurasian civilization, Russia as a bastion of traditional values, Russophobia, whataboutism, fraternalism with Russia’s near abroad, ties with Soviet-era allies, outside intervention in sovereign affairs, Russia as a proponent of stability in the world, Russia as a proponent of multipolarity in the world, and the promotion of international structures in which Russia plays a leading role.
  • The most frequently used narratives included outside intervention in sovereign affairs, whataboutism, the promotion of international structures in which Russia plays a leading role, and Russophobia.
  • Although the foreign policy narratives of Russian officials are designed to twist reality in ways that promote and justify foreign policy decisions to both domestic and foreign audiences, one common thread tying these narratives together is that all of them have an element of truth at their core.

Introduction

This policy brief provides a summary of results of a project that examined Russian foreign policy positions using statements made and interviews given by Russian government officials. The research team monitored Russian and Western media over a ten-month period, from September 2018 to June 2019, collecting both Russian- and English-language statements. We found a set of ten narratives frequently used by officials discussing Russian foreign policy. In this policy brief, we describe each of the narratives and provide some recent examples of their use. We conclude with some preliminary frequency analysis and trends of use over time during the study period.

Eurasia Versus Europe

This narrative tends to portray Russia as the center of a distinct Eurasian civilization with its own sovereign path that is separate from the rest of Europe. According to this argument, Russia is separate and different from the rest of Europe and should not be expected to integrate with it on purely European terms. This argument reflects a long tradition of Eurasianist discourse among Russian intellectuals that goes back to the early twentieth century and also hearkens back to an even older debate about Russian identity between Slavophiles and Westernizers that goes back to the tsarist era.

Officials focusing on this narrative discussed the need to form a greater Eurasia to safeguard the region’s distinct path, often in contrast to decadent European values. For example, in April 2019, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov stated, “We believe that there is the need to aspire for Greater Eurasia, which includes the European Union, our Eurasian Union and various Chinese initiatives.” This statement highlights the significance placed by Russian officials on deepening Russia’s relationship with China and especially highlights Russia’s role as a conduit for Chinese trade with Europe.

Russia as a Bastion of Traditional Values

According to this narrative, Russia possesses a distinct civilization that embodies and promotes “traditional” religious, societal, and other values in contrast with the more liberal, “decadent” West. This has been a common trope for Vladimir Putin. For example, in November 2018, he stated, “There is one thing I do not doubt: the voice of Russia will be dignified and confident in the future world, which is predetermined by our tradition, domestic spiritual culture, self-awareness, and, finally, the very history of our country as a distinctive civilization that is unique but does not make self-confident and loutish claims of exclusiveness.”

This narrative has been particularly favored by senior leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church, such as Patriarch Kirill, who said the following in November 2018: “The narrow paradigm of the New Time speaks of globalization as an inevitable process. Hidden underneath the word “inevitability” is the western principle of global development which features liberal secularism and modern forms of colonialism. . . . This mistake is a departure from tradition, the system of passing values from generation to generation which forms the civilizational code of peoples with its cultural, spiritual, and religious paradigms, relying on God-given and thus invariable moral values which have accompanied the humankind throughout history. Experience shows that the trampling of these values has led to tragedies and cataclysms in personal, societal and international relations.”

Russian leaders have focused on traditional values, particularly in their domestic messaging, as a way of contrasting Russia with the supposedly immoral member states of the European Union. This narrative helps Russian leaders justify their caution about developing close ties with Western Europe and their policies aimed at curtailing Western influence in Russia.

Russophobia

Russophobia refers to the narrative that the policies and actions of Russia’s opponents are motivated by an unjustified prejudice against Russia, rather than legitimate disagreement over policy or differences in geopolitical interests. Russian officials frequently highlight the role of Russophobia in accusations by U.S. politicians and media commentators of Russian interference in U.S. elections.

For example, in April 2019, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov commented on the publication of the Mueller Report, “Unfortunately, there is no sign that US political circles, particularly those who seek to score political points in the Congress from Russophobia, are ready for dialogue. The document is most likely to have no effect from the standpoint of improving relations.” He added that Washington “continues to bombard the public with anti-Russian allegations. Russian officials often argue that Russophobia makes it easy for Western politicians to blame Russia for all of their problems, rather than dealing with the actual causes.

Whataboutism

Whataboutism is the narrative that other powers are engaging in the same activities that they accuse Russia of engaging in. During the study period, Russian officials resorted to whataboutism frequently, including when criticizing the United States and its allies for interfering in Russian elections. In May 2019, the Federation Council released a statement noting, “Washington, its allies, and its partners are using available instruments, including information, political, administrative, diplomatic, organizational, technical, and financial ones, for illegally intervening in Russia’s sovereign affairs, including in the period of preparation for and holding of electoral campaigns of various levels in Russia.” This statement was clearly designed to highlight the equivalence between U.S. activities in 2019 and accusations of Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

Russian officials also highlighted violations of freedom of the press in Western Europe and compared Russian police actions against protesters with French police actions against Yellow Vest protesters to show that Russian actions are no different than those of the countries that regularly accuse Russia of violating human rights and international norms. For example, Vladimir Putin highlighted restrictions placed on RT broadcasting in France by noting, “We hear from our Western colleagues that the free dissemination of information . . . is one of the most important principles of democracy. . . . States should not hinder information spread through administrative routes, but rather put forward their perspective and let the people decide for themselves where the truth is and where its falsification is.” Commenting on European government actions against domestic protesters, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said, “Unlike France and Germany, Russia never uses water cannons, tear gas or rubber pellets to disperse protesters.”

Whataboutism is also used to reject criticism regarding Russian military and political influence activities abroad. In April 2019, referring to Russian support for the Venezuelan government, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “What do they mean by insolent remarks that the countries [outside] the Western Hemisphere are not allowed to have any interests there? But what is the United States doing? Take a look at the map of the US military bases: the entire world is dotted with red spots and each of them poses rather serious risks.” Overall, the whataboutism narrative is used to suggest that Russia is no different from the Western states that regularly condemn Russian behavior both domestically and on the world stage.

Fraternalism with Russia’s Near Abroad

The Near Abroad is Russia’s preferred term for the countries of the former Soviet Union, with the arguable exception of the Baltic States. The term is associated with fraternalist narratives concerning brotherly links, paternalistic relationships, and special historical and cultural commonalities with these countries.

Officials using this narrative during the study period made references to the continuing fraternal relationship with Belarus during a period of intense discussion of potential closer integration of the two states. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov highlighted the special fraternal relationship, noting, “I don’t think anyone in Moscow or Minsk would dispute the existence of de facto and de jure special and allied relations between the two countries.” Officials also lamented the destruction of brotherly ties with Ukraine by fascists and nationalists bent on tearing Ukraine away from Russia. For example, in reference to Russia’s relationship with Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said, “As for the long term, no matter what happens, no matter who is in power in Kyiv today, the Russian and Ukrainian peoples have always been and will forever be fraternal and very close . . . . This political scum will go away, recede.” Similarly, Peskov stated in May 2019 that “[Putin] has always stated that the relations between the countries’ leadership should not in any way be projected to the long-standing close and brotherly relations of the peoples of the two countries.” These statements highlight Russian leaders’ tendency to continue to consider former Soviet states, especially Ukraine and Belarus, as “naturally” belonging to Russia’s cultural and political sphere of influence.

Relations with Soviet-Era Allies

This category refers to the set of Russian narratives that relate to “traditional relations” with partners that have maintained close ties with Russia since the Soviet Era, such as Vietnam and Syria. When discussing new initiatives with foreign states that fit this category, Russian leaders commonly refer to the history of bilateral ties in the Soviet period. During the study period, Vladimir Putin mentioned such ties during official meetings with leaders of Vietnam and Serbia, and Sergey Lavrov highlighted the history of close relations between Russia and Latin American countries. This emphasis is especially common in situations in which the two sides are discussing military assistance. For example, in April 2019, Russian Presidential Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov noted “Sudan’s willingness and readiness to develop cooperation with Russia on the basis of traditionally friendly relations spanning since 1950s.” Although this is not a frequent narrative, it does play an important role when Russian officials seek to further links with states with which Russia had ties during the Cold War.

Outside Intervention in Sovereign Affairs

This category describes the narrative that certain domestic policies and developments in a given country are the result of meddling from outside powers, most often the United States, rather than the outcome of internal factors. Russian leaders frequently express vehement opposition to such activities, although many countries accuse Russia of employing similar tactics abroad. During the study period, Russian officials made strong statements against U.S. intervention in Venezuela, citing the principle of noninterference in sovereign affairs. For example, in May 2019, Sergey Lavrov stated, “Mike Pompeo called me, urged [Russia] not to support [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro, and urged us and Cuba not to interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs. This whole story sounds quite surrealistic. I answered him, based on our principled position, that we never interfere in somebody else’s affairs and call on others to act the same way.”

Russian officials have made similar statements about how U.S. military operations in Syria and support for specific political groups in Ukraine were instances of interference in sovereign affairs. In the context of the Syria operation, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin condemned the “United States of America, which continues using terrorists and extremists as a tool of pressure and direct inference in the affairs of sovereign states.” Regarding Ukraine, Russian officials accused the United States of getting involved in the conflict over the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and condemned its influence on Ukrainian elections. Sergey Lavrov’s assessment was that, “The current leadership in Kyiv is guided not so much by the interests of their country but by the ambitions and ‘recommendations’ and often direct orders from other capitals.” When asked about similar Russian activities, Russian leaders argue that unlike the United States Russia only acts when invited by a country’s official government.

Russia as a Proponent of Stability in the World

Russian leaders frequently argue that Russia’s activities at home and abroad are justified by the need to maintain stability, while portraying opponents’ actions as attempts to destabilize a given situation. For example, in April 2019, Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov criticized Western humanitarian operations around the world in the following terms: “Frequently, the so-called humanitarian interference is done under the pretext of promoting democracy, thus provoking intra-state instability. For Western countries, unilateral actions towards other states carried out with disregard for the opinion of their legitimate governments and not authorized by the UN [United Nations] have already become the norm.”

Around the same time, General Alexander Levin, one of the commanders of the Russian military base in Tajikistan, highlighted the beneficial nature of the humanitarian operation there, saying, “The joint actions by the Russian base, units of the Defense Ministry and other security structures of Tajikistan are becoming a guarantor of peace and stability in the region.” This pair of statements highlights the Russian trope that Russian interventions promote stability in the world, while interventions by Western countries, especially by the United States, sow chaos.

Russia as a Proponent of Multipolarity in the World

Russian officials often describe the current world order as being unfairly dominated by a single power—specifically, the United States. In response, they promote the idea that the international community should welcome multiple arbiters, including and especially Russia and China. In the meantime, they highlight how most of the world’s problems are caused by the United States trying to resist the natural development of a polycentric world order. In late May 2019, Lavrov noted, “As we can see, security problems have been piling up in the Asia Pacific region and the world at large because Western countries are trying to stall or even reverse the objective formation of a polycentric world order.” Also that month, Vladimir Putin called for the establishment of an efficient security system that would be equal for all states, arguing that only through a collective response can radical extremist ideas be defeated.

Russian officials generally argue that the U.S. effort to maintain its unilateral dominance is a fruitless battle, and one that the United States will eventually lose. For example, in April 2019, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu argued that “[o]ur Western colleagues cannot accept the fact that the era of the unipolar world order is nearing an inevitable end so they are trying to protract this natural process.” These statements highlight the key idea of this narrative: that multipolarity is inevitable, and that efforts by Western states to resist it are both futile and counterproductive.

Promotion of International Structures in Which Russia Plays a Leading Role

This narrative refers to Russian leaders’ tendency to promote the involvement in international negotiations of organizational entities in which Russia has a dominant or equal voice as compared with Western powers. Such organizations include, most prominently, the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations Security Council. Conversely, Russian leaders frequently criticize structures in which their country is less empowered, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Council of Europe.

During the study period, Russian officials frequently argued that international crises could only be solved through the UN. This was particularly noticeable during the peak of the effort by the Venezuelan opposition to replace Nicolás Maduro with Juan Guaidó. Sergey Lavrov stated, “We with our Venezuelan partners share the opinion that any use of force in circumvention of the [UN] Security Council is fraught with disastrous consequences for modern international security as a whole.” Similarly, Vyacheslav Volodin argued that the Kosovo conflict can only be solved under the auspices of the UN: “A solution to the Kosovo problem can definitely only be sought via dialogue based on decisions made in the UN. Primarily, UN Security Council Resolution 1244.”

Russian officials also sought to use other international organizations, especially the OSCE. The OSCE was used to promote Russian interests in Ukraine, as highlighted in the following statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry: “Regardless of this fact, Russia will utilize its right to monitor the elections within an international mission in another OSCE member state, in this case in Ukraine. Our steps are based on the mutual obligations of all OSCE members to provide reciprocal, and unimpeded access by observers to one another’s elections. This measure needs to ensure that electoral processes are transparent and democratic.” These statements show that Russian officials prefer to promote their country’s interests through international organizations in which Russia plays a prominent role, while avoiding or denigrating organizations from which Russia is excluded (such as NATO).

Frequency Analysis

As shown in Table 1, the frequency with which these narratives were used by Russian officials during the period of analysis can be divided into three groups. The most frequently used included outside intervention in sovereign affairs, whataboutism, the promotion of international structures in which Russia plays a leading role, and Russophobia. A second set of narratives was used somewhat less frequently, including references to Russia’s near abroad, Russia’s focus on multipolarity versus Western unilateralism, and Russia’s role as a promoter of stability as compared with the Western tendency toward destabilizing interventions. The least frequently used narratives included references to Soviet-era allies, the importance of Russia’s Eurasian identity, and Russia’s role as a bastion of traditional values.

A table showing the frequency of narratives used by Russian officials.

In terms of trends over time, most of the narratives were relatively evenly spread out over the entire ten-month period of observation. In particular, Russophobia, whataboutism, and references to the near abroad occurred at a fairly constant rate throughout the period. Figure 1 shows that some narratives have noticeable peaks and valleys over time, especially sovereign affairs and the promotion of international structures. The February peak in the sovereign affairs narrative is related to the peak of the crisis in Venezuela and concurrent Russian fears of a U.S. military intervention there. However, the smaller April peak in that narrative and the February peak in the promotion of international structures both include mentions of a wide variety of topics. For the former, these include discussion of Western intervention in Libya and Venezuela and discussion related to Brexit and cyberattacks. For the latter, Russian officials refer to a wide variety of crises that they say should all be dealt with either in the UN Security Council or the OSCE, including Ukraine, Syria, Macedonia, Kosovo, and the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Figure 2. “Trends in Key Narratives”

Conclusion

Although Russian official foreign policy narratives are designed to twist reality in ways that promote and justify foreign policy decisions to both domestic and foreign audiences, one common thread tying these narratives together is that all of them have an element of truth at their core. These narratives all connect with prevalent perceptions of the world and of the role of Russia and the United States in it. By starting with a core element of truth, Russian officials are able to create narratives that resonate with the dominant frames through which their audiences view the world.

Thus, they tend to highlight Russophobia and traditional values to domestic audiences. They also highlight the tendency of the United States to intervene in other countries and connect this tendency to increased instability in regions such as the Middle East in order to create the narrative of the United States as a destabilizing actor in world affairs. Whataboutism is used with both domestic and international audiences to highlight instances in which Western actors fall short of their stated principles, making the argument that Western leaders have no standing to criticize Russian actions. The end result is a relatively coherent picture of the world as a chaotic place and of Russia as a stabilizing agent within it.


A Note on Sources: Materials were collected through a variety of sources, including Opensource.gov, the Eastview database of Russian newspapers, and direct access to the TASS news agency and the websites of major Russian and Western newspapers. The bulk of the materials came from newswire reports, such as TASS in Russian and Interfax in English. Russian-language sources also included all major central newspapers. English-language sources also included Western English-language newspapers and media sites of record, such as the New York Times and the BBC. All materials were hand-coded by one of the two team members. Our analysis assumes that statements in Russian-language sources are aimed primarily at a domestic audience, while statements in English-language sources are aimed primarily at an international audience. Links are provided to sources that are available on the internet. Citations to all sources may be found on the Marshall Center’s version of this article.

Russia’s Naval Strategy in the Mediterranean

One more in the series of policy briefs on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russian naval strategy in the Mediterranean, written in June but only recently published. As with the last one, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.


Executive Summary

  • Over the last decade, Russia has expanded its military footprint in the Mediterranean. Since establishing its Mediterranean Squadron in 2013, it has largely maintained a permanent naval presence in the region, based primarily on ships from the Black Sea Fleet, with support from ships and submarines of the Northern and Baltic Fleets.
  • Russia’s strategy uses the Mediterranean’s geography to protect Russia’s southern flanks while seeking to challenge the naval supremacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia depends on maintaining and gradually expanding its naval presence in the Mediterranean while also securing expanded access to ports and bases, with the possibility of eventually contesting NATO’s dominance in the central Mediterranean as well.
  • Although the Russian Navy’s missions in the Mediterranean are primarily related to coastal defense and protection of territorial waters, conventional deterrence has come to play an increasingly important role since the development of a ship-based cruise missile capability. The Russian Navy has sought to establish credible maritime conventional deterrence versus NATO through the combination of air defenses and cruise missile–equipped ships, which work together to signal that any use of NATO naval forces against Russian ships and facilities would be highly costly for the adversary.

Russia’s Strategic Goals

Russia’s strategy in the Mediterranean is focused on three key goals: taking advantage of the Mediterranean’s geographical position to improve Russia’s security, using Russia’s position in the Mediterranean to increase Russia’s status as an alternative world power to the United States, and providing support for the Syrian regime. The strategy has three key elements. The first element is the positioning of a credible military force in the Mediterranean. A permanent force in the region is important for several Russian objectives, including protecting Russian approaches and reducing Russia’s vulnerability to surprise.

This force also affords Russia more flexibility and capability in countering Western activities in the Mediterranean, grants Russia more-ready access to the world’s oceans, reduces the time needed to shuttle forces and platforms to the region in case of a conflict, and gives Russia a constant presence for spreading influence in the surrounding countries.

The second element of the strategy consists of an effort to secure allies and partners in the region with the goal of increasing port access for Russia’s naval squadron. Although Syria remains the critical ally for Russia, efforts to enhance cooperation with Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and other states have been successful to a greater or lesser extent.

The third element of the strategy builds on the second and focuses on establishing naval bases in the region—an effort successful only in Syria, so far. A base in the central Mediterranean, such as in Libya, would be particularly important from a strategic point of view, allowing Russia to expand its naval footprint beyond the eastern Mediterranean.

Without access granted by allies in the Mediterranean, a standing military presence, and regional basing, Moscow would likely find it more difficult to conduct operations in pursuit of its overarching strategic goals in the region. Were the three elements achieved, the Russian military would be in a much more favorable position in the event of hostilities or conflict in the Mediterranean.

Russia’s Naval Capabilities in the Mediterranean

In 2013, Russia reestablished a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea with its Mediterranean Squadron. The Black Sea Fleet (BSF) has been the primary supplier of ships and logistics for the squadron. Since 2014, the BSF has acquired six new attack submarines, three frigates, and several patrol ships and small missile ships. In conjunction with these acquisitions, Russia has begun major overhauls of some of its Soviet-era ships. Russia has moved air defense batteries into Crimea, where these batteries provide further cover for Russian platforms operating in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. The introduction of multiple platforms armed with long-range cruise missiles, and the addition of air defense batteries in Crimea, has fundamentally changed the way the Black Sea Fleet operates. Armed with Kalibr missile systems, which have a demonstrated range of 1,500–2,000 km, the fleet’s newest ships can strike distant targets from well-protected zones near Russia’s coastline in Crimea and Novorossiysk.

Since the addition of six Varshavyanka-class submarines to the BSF in 2017, Russia has stationed two such vessels in Tartus, Syria. Surface ships and submarines from Russia’s other fleets, mainly the Northern and Baltic, have participated in squadron operations at various times as well. The force has actively contributed to Russia’s military operations in Syria. In addition to delivering troops, BSF vessels have fired Kalibr missiles at ground targets throughout Syria. Russian ships have also shadowed U.S. ships in the eastern Mediterranean, and Russian submarines deployed to the Mediterranean have tracked U.S. and NATO platforms there as well. The squadron has also facilitated Russian naval diplomacy efforts, as ships from the squadron have called at ports at Cyprus, Egypt, and Malta.

The BSF will continue to acquire new ships during the next ten years, allowing Russia to increase the number of ships potentially able to deploy for operations in the Mediterranean. In addition, Russia has strengthened its air and air defense forces in the Mediterranean, positioning a range of tactical combat aircraft at its air base in Syria and having demonstrated the ability to surge long-range aviation into the Mediterranean from bases in Russian territory. Russian defenses can control the entire Black Sea from Crimea, including all approaches to Russian coastal areas. Russia has been deploying similar protective capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean, including placing S-400 and S-300 air defense systems, Bastion and Bal coastal defense systems, and Pantsir point-defense systems together with air force and naval units. Although the political geography of the region and the more-limited nature of Russian forces there mean that Moscow does not have the same kind of defensive control as it does in the Black Sea, its forces in the Mediterranean are strong enough to present a potent challenge to U.S. and NATO naval dominance in the region.

The Missions of the Russian Navy

Strategic deterrence remains the most important mission for the Russian Navy globally, but coastal defense and control of territorial waters are a close second and are paramount concerns in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Russia has traditionally considered coastal defense to mean simply keeping foreign navies away from the Russian coast; since 2015, however, the coastal-defense mission has come to encompass protection of Russian forces in Syria as well. Furthermore, over the last decade, the Russian Navy has increasingly focused on improving its ability to work closely with Russian ground forces and the Russian air force in joint operations. This coordination was on display as early as 2014, when all of the services worked closely together to move forces to Crimea as part of the operation that resulted in Russia’s annexation of that region. Since that time, Russia has repeatedly focused its military exercises on joint operations. The positive effects of that focus have been evident in Russian naval operations in and near Syria, where Russian naval forces have coordinated closely with Russian air and ground forces both in striking targets on shore and in transporting personnel and equipment for Russian operations.

Russia is achieving its coastal-defense mission primarily through capability development rather than platform acquisition. This is why the Russian Navy is not as concerned as some Western analysts think it should be about the difficulties and delays it has faced in building large surface ships. Instead, it has built a large number of smaller patrol ships and corvettes that are highly capable in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) operations. The idea is that the Russian Navy can use these ships to create maritime zones that are difficult for enemy forces to penetrate. These “A2/AD bubbles” in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean form a set of layered defenses and multiple vectors of attack through the combination of long-range sea-, air-, and ground-launched missiles used to deny access, with shorter-range coastal and air defense systems focused on area denial. As part of the coastal-defense mission, the Russian Navy will seek to establish credible maritime conventional deterrence against NATO through the combination of air defenses and cruise missile–equipped ships, which will work together to highlight that any use of NATO naval forces against Russian ships and facilities would be highly costly for the adversary.

In contrast, the Russian Navy has a relatively limited focus on traditional power projection and expeditionary warfare in the Mediterranean. Russia’s largest naval surface ships are Soviet legacy vessels that are becoming less reliable over time. Most of the new surface ships being built are relatively small and are unlikely to deploy far beyond Russia’s naval outposts in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. As a result, power projection will be largely based on the new generation of advanced Kilo-class diesel submarines and the regular presence of one or two cruise missile–carrying nuclear submarines deployed to the Mediterranean from the Northern Fleet. Russia’s legacy fleet of Soviet-era surface ships will continue to focus on status projection, carrying out port visits and similar activities to project the image of a great power. The Russian Navy also has a fairly limited expeditionary capability. Its small number of aging landing ships have reached the limit of their operational capacity in supporting Russia’s operations in Syria.

Constraints on Russian Naval Operations in the Mediterranean

The Russian Navy’s future plans in the Mediterranean face several constraints. On the financing side, Moscow invested heavily in naval procurement as part of the 2011-2020 State Armament Program. It was not willing to maintain such a high level of spending for the next ten years, especially given the constraints on overall military spending resulting from a relatively stagnant economic situation. As a result, the Russian Navy appears likely to be the biggest loser in the 2027 State Armament Program.

On the shipbuilding side, most Russian naval construction projects have faced significant delays. This is due to the combination of a long-term decline in naval research and development that is only starting to be reversed, an inability to modernize its shipbuilding industry, budgetary constraints that have forced the government to make tradeoffs about which construction and modernization programs to fund, and the end of defense cooperation with Ukrainian and Western suppliers in the aftermath of the 2014 conflict with Ukraine.

In terms of industrial capacity, most of Russia’s shipyards are not in the best shape. The Sevmash and Admiralty shipyards are exceptions and reveal the importance attached to submarine construction over surface ships. Russia’s other shipyards have generally been very slow in building ships. The situation has not been helped by the disruption of supply chains as a result of Western sanctions. Until the advent of Western sanctions in 2014, many key components were purchased from abroad. Although this disruption has been most evident in the cases of gas turbines and diesel engines, Moscow has also experienced problems with the acquisition of various electronic components and precision machine tools. For several years, therefore, the acquisition and development of advanced components were the biggest constraint on the construction of new ships with modern systems. However, most of these issues are now being resolved through the development of domestic alternatives, so faster naval construction is likely in the future.

Russia also faces operational challenges in naval operations in the Mediterranean. The primary challenge is one of logistics and bringing platforms to the fight. The Turkish Straits would likely be a severe hindrance to sending reinforcements and to Russia’s ability to redeploy back to the Black Sea in the event of a conflict involving NATO, especially if Turkey continues to follow the strictures of the Montreux Convention. Additionally, Russian intermediate-range bombers would likely face challenges transiting from Russia to the airspace over Syria.

Because of these challenges, Russian leadership would, prior to any outbreak in the eastern Mediterranean, have to choose whether to fight in the Mediterranean or attempt to bring forces back to the Black Sea to defend Russia’s southern borders. Should Russian forces stay in the Mediterranean, they would pose a serious threat to U.S. and NATO forces by creating an increasingly dense missile and electronic-warfare environment farther into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Russia would have to expect that it would lose these forces to an ultimately numerically and qualitatively superior enemy force, albeit after exacting a potentially high cost on its adversary.

Russia’s Future Naval Role in the Mediterranean

In the future, the BSF is expected to support an even larger Mediterranean squadron, with a constant presence of one to two multipurpose submarines from the Northern Fleet and 10–15 surface ships (primarily from the BSF). Russia’s efforts to expand its presence in the Mediterranean would also require the establishment of more and bigger bases in the region. Such bases would not just provide an opportunity for refueling and repair of ships: They could also house coastal defensive systems that would protect the squadron.

In the near to medium term, the Russian Navy’s role will be to serve primarily as a deterrence force to constrain U.S. and NATO operations in the eastern Mediterranean and to provide forward defense for approaches to the Russian homeland through the Black Sea. It will have some power projection through its ability to hold opponents’ territory at risk with its cruise

missile capability, rather than through traditional naval strike groups. Out-of-area deployment capability will increasingly shift to smaller patrol ships and to submarines as Russia’s remaining Soviet-era large surface ships become increasingly less reliable.

Over the last decade, there has been a transition in the Russian Navy’s future planning from unattainable blue-water aspirations to establishing a fairly capable green-water force. Its overall focus remains defensive in the near term, with the possibility of greater emphasis on power projection in the medium term as more Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines come online and older Soviet submarines are armed with Kalibr cruise missiles as part of ongoing modernization plans.

This future force has the potential to threaten the naval forces of the United States and its allies with land-attack and antiship cruise missiles based on small ships in enclosed seas that are highly protected from attack and with difficult-to-detect modern submarines. The result will be a Russian Navy that, compared with the past, has much greater firepower and offensive range despite its dependence on relatively small platforms. This capability will make the Russian Navy a far more potent regional threat by the mid-2020s than it has been for several decades.

The Mediterranean will play a key role in Russian naval strategy because of its strategic significance as an access point to southern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. For Russia, the Mediterranean symbolizes the larger competition between Moscow and Washington. By building up its naval forces, Russia is hoping to circumscribe NATO access to the region, protect Russia’s southern flank, and assist its current and potential future client states in the region. At the same time, maintaining forces in the eastern Mediterranean is less of a priority for Russian strategy than defending the homeland. Maintaining naval presence in the Mediterranean is a far more effective strategy for the Russian Navy than pursuing a globally active blue-water navy because Russia has neither the resources nor the global ambitions to challenge U.S. naval supremacy around the world. Moscow’s focus on developing and augmenting the Mediterranean squadron is thus a far more achievable limited objective that is well-aligned with Russia’s foreign policy objectives in the region.

Strategic Russian Strategic Decision-Making in a Nordic Crisis

Here’s the second in a series of policy briefs on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russian strategic goals in a Nordic crisis. With permission from the Marshall Center, I am posting the full text here, though please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version. The first of these briefs, focusing on the Baltics, was posted last April.


Executive Summary

  • This policy brief examines how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Nordic region. This analysis is based on a model of Russian decision-making in crisis situations that describes Russian leaders as prospect theory players who take greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than they do to pursue potential opportunities. They seek to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, political defeats at home.
  • Russia’s strategic objectives in the Nordic region are thus focused primarily on maintaining the status quo rather than changing the strategic environment or expanding Russian influence in a significant way. The primary objective is simply to maintain Russian influence in the region. Russia is also working to prevent the formal admission of Sweden and Finland to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO in fighting against Russia in the event of a conflict.
  • We can expect Russia to act cautiously in the Nordic region because it is not facing a loss situation. Russian leaders will tend to pursue their goals through nonmilitary means and will be careful to avoid unintended escalation. The one exception to their preference for nonescalation would occur in the event of an attack on Russian territory, which would create a loss situation for Russia and therefore allow for a robust defense and/or counterattack.

Introduction

 This policy brief, the second in a series that addresses how Russian strategic culture can explain Russian foreign policy behavior, examines how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Nordic region. The Nordic region is presented as a case study to generate conclusions with regard to the drivers of Russian strategic behavior, especially the factors that incentivize or constrain risk-taking.

Overview of Russian Strategic Decision-Making

This analysis is based on a model of crisis decision-making developed by the Russian analysis team at CNA. As an abbreviated version of this model has already been presented in a previous article in this series, what follows is a brief summary. The model presents Russia as a prospect theory player on the international scene that takes greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than it does to pursue potential opportunities.

Russian strategic objectives are rooted in and derived from the following three principal Russian foreign policy motivations:

  • Maximizing security, which results in the pursuit of extended defense and has been the main driver for Russian aggression in its near abroad and Russia’s military modernization at home.
  • Russia’s desire for a privileged sphere of influence as an effort to achieve regional hegemony based on the goal of maximizing its overall power.
  • Maintaining great power status in the international system by ending U.S. primacy and thereby upending the unipolar nature of power distribution in the international system in favor of a multipolar one. However, this motivation does not necessarily mean that Russia wants to challenge the United States directly, given the power disparity.

Russian leaders prefer to achieve their political goals through coercion and threats of violence, rather than actual violence. Russian strategy in a conflict seeks to establish escalation dominance over potential adversaries by convincing them that Russia is able and willing to use force in pursuit of its objectives. When pressed to use force, Russia tends to use the minimum amount of force required to achieve its objectives in order to minimize losses and costs. This approach also allows Russia to maintain the threat of bringing in additional force if the adversary does not accept Russian objectives. Russia is happy to use force multipliers, such as local militias and mercenaries, to absorb the bulk of combat losses. Ambiguity is used to maintain plausible deniability and thereby slow adversary decision-making. Finally, Russia seeks to deter external actors from interfering in a conflict in order to prevent escalation.

Russia’s Strategic Assessment of the Nordic Region

Russia’s strategic calculus suggests that in the event of a crisis in the Nordic region, Russia will focus on the geographic and political environment in the region in determining its strategic objectives and minimum and maximum goals for the situation.

The geography of the Baltic Sea would play a particularly important role in Russia’s assessment of a potential maritime conflict scenario. The geography of the Baltic Sea in many ways mirrors that of the Black Sea, except that the geography favors NATO and its partners, rather than Russia. Like the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea is enclosed, with passage restricted by the Danish Straits. Although the Oresund and Fehmarn Belt are considered international straits, as governed by the Copenhagen Convention of 1857, they could easily be closed by NATO forces in the event of a conflict, effectively preventing Russia from bringing naval reinforcements to the Baltic Sea from the Northern Fleet or the Mediterranean. In addition, a series of islands can provide effective control over the sea itself. Bornholm (controlled by Denmark), Gotland (Sweden) and the Aland Islands (Finland), can be used to control the sea lanes in the Baltic Sea as well as the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia. These islands thus can play the same role in the Baltic as Crimea does in the Black Sea. Furthermore, Estonia and Finland effectively control entrance to the Gulf of Finland and therefore to St. Petersburg.

Although Western analysts often paint Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave as a militarized territory that threatens the security of the NATO member states in the region, Russian planners view the region as a vulnerable outpost surrounded by potentially well-armed NATO states. As a result of these factors, Russia feels that the region’s geography is relatively negatively set up for Russian forces to act in the event of a conflict with NATO and its partners.

Russia’s political assessment also emphasizes the potential challenges of a military conflict in the region. Although Sweden and Finland are ostensibly neutral, Russian leaders fully expect them to be involved on the side of NATO in any conflict between NATO and Russia. They point to statements that the two countries have made, such as the European Union (EU) solidarity clause and the EU Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) effort joined by Sweden and Finland in 2017, that strongly imply such a scenario. They also note that the two countries have been strengthening their military forces in recent years and have increasingly integrated these forces with NATO. Both Sweden and Finland have increased their frequency of participation in NATO exercises. These developments are seen in Russia as clear signals that neither country will stay out of the fight in the event of a conflict.

On the other side, Swedish planners fear that Russia might preemptively attack Gotland in a conflict in order to take control of the middle section of the Baltic Sea. They have responded by placing troops on the island for the first time in over a decade. Although the force is only the size of a regiment, it is meant as a symbol of Swedish intent in combination with the reintroduction of military conscription. Russia has decried this move as a step toward the further militarization of the region.

Finland’s history of relations with Russia makes its leaders cautious about exacerbating tensions with Moscow. They point to their losses in previous wars with the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, which resulted in the policy of “Finlandization” that effectively meant that Finland did not have full control over its foreign policy orientation until the end of the Cold War, a period of over 40 years. As a result, Finnish leaders have generally avoided hostile rhetoric against Russia while retaining more contacts with Moscow than other countries in the region. Furthermore, most of the Finnish population remains opposed to their country joining NATO. Although Finland has supported EU sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, it has retained significant trade relations and has a sizable expatriate Russian population in Helsinki. Russia has proved adept at using trade links and expatriate Russian populations in other European countries to undermine anti-Russian policies. Similar tactics could be used in the Nordic region.

Russia’s Strategic Objectives

Russia’s strategic objectives in the Nordic region are thus focused primarily on maintaining the status quo rather than changing the strategic environment or expanding Russian influence in a significant way. The primary objective is simply to maintain Russian influence in the region. To this end, Russia has undertaken a propaganda effort to show the citizens of these countries that Russia does not threaten them. Russia has pursued political influence operations to prevent the growth of negative political attitudes toward Russia. To this end, there are concerns that it has used the Russian expatriate population and other pro-Russian activists in the region, especially in Finland, as a supportive element. It has also provided support to political parties and societal organizations critical of the EU and especially of NATO as a way of limiting the trend toward closer cooperation between NATO and the two nonmember Nordic states. Russia has also sought to maintain and enhance economic linkages with Nordic states, most notably through the strategic use of its role as an energy supplier to Finland. It is estimated that forty percent of Finland’s energy comes from Russia, and Russia has taken steps in recent years to make the import of electricity cheaper for Finland in order to maintain that connection.

In regard to military issues, Russia has worked to prevent the formal admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO. To this end, it has used a classic carrot-and-stick approach. Russian media has highlighted popular opposition to NATO membership within these countries, noting the likelihood of negative political consequences for any government that chooses to pursue NATO membership. Russian officials have threatened political, economic, and military consequences for Sweden and Finland should they choose to formally join NATO. The implicit threat is that not only would cheap energy supplies end and trade be negatively affected, but Russia could use tactics it has pursued elsewhere, such as cyberattacks and funding of antigovernment groups, to undermine political stability in these countries. Russian media have also suggested the possibility that Russia might offer inducements to Sweden and Finland for remaining neutral or at least not joining NATO formally.

In the event of a regional crisis, Russian leaders would seek to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO in fighting against Russia. They would seek to preempt the threat by neutralizing Nordic militaries through a Russian military buildup in the region combined with the threat that Russia would target these countries’ territories should fighting break out. Russia’s minimum goal in a Nordic crisis is thus to maintain and exacerbate existing divisions in the Nordic states that prevent them from seeking to join NATO and to inhibit further integration of their military forces with NATO forces short of membership. Russia’s maximum goal is to reverse the existing close integration of the military forces of the Nordic states with those of the United States and NATO and ideally to have these states recommit to neutrality in deed as well as in word.

Russia’s Vulnerabilities

Russia’s vulnerabilities in a Nordic crisis are to a large extent the same as its vulnerabilities in other regions, though there are some aspects particular to this region. The Russian military has relatively few forces in northwestern Russia because its main focus in recent years has been on securing the Caucasus, reinforcing its border with Ukraine, and building up forces in the Arctic and the Far North. Russian forces in northwestern Russia are not equipped for a short-notice conventional conflict, with relatively few mechanized units and a command structure not set up to fight a war in this region. As noted above, the geography of the region makes a maritime conflict relatively complicated for Russia, though that disadvantage may be mitigated in a broader engagement due to the Nordic region’s proximity to Russia and the relatively long border with Finland.

Russia is hampered by its lack of allies in the European theater. Although Belarus is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a Russian military partner, it would be unlikely to actively participate in a Russian military campaign. It might, however, reluctantly allow Russia to use its territory as a staging area in a conflict with NATO. Recent political tensions about the extent to which Belarus can be expected to integrate with Russia have highlighted the limits of the relationship between Moscow and Minsk. Other allies are even less likely to get involved. Neither Russia’s other CSTO allies nor China will want to get involved in a fight with NATO and (with the exception of China) would not be able to contribute significantly to the effort.

As with any conflict with a powerful but distant adversary, Russian leaders would be concerned that the overall force balance between Russia and NATO would become highly unfavorable in a longer-term conflict. For this reason, they would want to keep the conflict short and ensure that any conflict in the region would not result in horizontal escalation, which could expose Russian territory to defeat by the much larger and stronger U.S. military in a regional or even global conflict. They would be particularly concerned about the possibility that the conflict could spread to other theaters, especially the Mediterranean, which would cause Russia’s forces to be stretched thin in a fight on multiple fronts.

Finally, Russian leaders may be concerned about the impact of any kind of extended or costly intervention on Russian domestic politics. They will want to make sure that they avoid costly and long-lasting entanglements that might result in the Russian public turning against the intervention. Such a situation would be especially likely if Western states pursued strong economic countermeasures that had a direct negative effect on the Russian economy or on Russians’ ability to travel to Europe. In particular, this scenario would be a problem in a conflict that the Russian public might see as a war of choice rather than of necessity, especially one that becomes costly in either financial or human terms. For this reason, Russian leaders will seek to avoid both defeat and long-term entanglement in a Nordic conflict, as these circumstances would increase the likelihood of a strong negative effect at the domestic level.

Red Lines and (De-)Escalation Drivers

As in the Baltics, Russian leaders would view a crisis in the Nordic region primarily as a potential opportunity to realize strategic gains rather than as a threat to Russia’s vital interests. As a result, they would consider the stakes to be relatively low in most situations. This assessment would lead to a strategy of managing the crisis carefully in order to keep costs low and avoid triggering a vigorous response by NATO. Although it is important for Russia to keep Sweden and Finland out of NATO, Russia would not be likely to mount a military response if the two Nordic states take steps toward that goal. Concerns about the vulnerabilities described above, especially the danger of horizontal escalation to other theaters and the risk of loss of popularity at home due to high casualties or serious financial impact from a conflict, would encourage Russian leaders to de-escalate hostilities in the event of a crisis in the Nordic region.

The one exception to this calculus would occur in the event of a NATO attack on Russian territory. Such an attack would lead to escalation as it would pose a direct threat to the homeland and regime survival while uniting the Russian population in defense of their homeland. The Russian people have shown repeatedly that they are far more likely to accept sacrifices to defend the country than to engage in a war of choice, so Russia should be expected to escalate any conflict where control of its own territory is at stake.

Conclusion

Russia’s main peacetime goals in the Nordic region involve preventing further military integration of the Nordic states with NATO. The primary means to carry out these goals are political and cyber in nature, rather than military. In a conflict, Russia’s main goals would be similar: to keep the Nordic states out of any conflict with NATO or to keep NATO out of any conflict with a Nordic state. Escalation poses serious risks to Russia, so Russian leaders would be unlikely to initiate a conflict in the region. Russia would be much more willing to defend itself if threatened or attacked but otherwise would limit itself to using indirect means to weaken the Nordic states and to undermine their unity with their NATO partners.

Russian Strategic Culture in a Baltic Crisis

As part of a collaborative project on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative, I have published a policy brief on Russian strategic goals in a Baltic crisis. Here is  the executive summary and some highlights. The full brief is available through the Marshall Center website.

Executive Summary

  • This policy brief addresses how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Baltic region. This analysis is based on a model of Russian decisionmaking in crisis situations that describes Russian leaders as prospect theory players who take greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than they do to pursue potential opportunities. They seek to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, translate into political defeats at home.
  • Given this strategic calculus, we can expect Russia to act cautiously in the Baltic region because it is not facing a loss situation. Based on Russia’s limited stakes in the region, Russian leaders are likely to be highly reluctant to risk a major military confrontation with NATO through any overuse of Russian military forces. They will be careful to limit both the level of risk and the level of effort they would take on in this scenario.
  • Russia’s approach to managing a Baltic crisis scenario is based on the recognition that the balance of stakes and capabilities in such a situation ultimately would favor the West. If Baltic governments and their NATO allies both hesitate in their response, Russian leaders may seek to use the crisis to gain a strategic advantage. However, if Russian leaders see a forceful response in the early stages of a crisis, they would be likely to de-escalate in order to avert major losses.

Introduction

How relevant are the concepts of strategic culture and operational code in explaining Russian foreign policy behavior? This policy brief addresses how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Baltic region (that is, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The goal is to use the Baltic case study to generate conclusions about the drivers of Russian strategic behavior, especially the factors that incentivize or constrain risk-taking.

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Applying Strategic Calculus to the Baltic Region

Given the strategic calculus described above, Russia would be expected to act far more cautiously in the Baltics than it did in Ukraine in 2014. Unlike that crisis, Russia is not facing a loss situation in the Baltic region. In Ukraine, Russia was facing the prospect of a potentially catastrophic loss of power and influence if Ukraine joined the Western alliance system against Russian wishes. The Baltic states, on the other hand, are already members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) and are therefore outside of Russia’s sphere of influence. Any effort on Russia’s part to attack or politically destabilize the region would thus be an effort to make gains, not avert losses. In effect, the Baltics have already been lost to Russia, and the geopolitical impact of that loss has been fully absorbed into Russian strategic thinking.

That said, Russia could benefit politically and militarily by achieving greater control over the Baltic region, which would allow Russia to strengthen its position as the dominant regional power while simultaneously enhancing its security. But these gains would be fairly small and hardly worth the enormous risk of attacking a NATO member state. Moreover, these gains can easily be overstated. The Baltics are too small to provide much of a security buffer for Russia, and they cannot host a large Western military force. Furthermore, the NATO-Russia Founding Act already limits the number of Western forces that can be permanently deployed in the region. All of these factors reduce the significance of the threat to Russia from the Baltic states, even though they are firmly allied with the United States and are part of NATO.

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Russian Strategic Objectives in a Baltic Crisis

In a Baltic crisis scenario, Russia would have two primary strategic objectives. First, it would seek to use the crisis to achieve geopolitical gains at the local, regional, and global levels. At the local level, it would first and foremost seek to defend the ethnic Russian populace to vindicate its compatriot policy and increase its influence in Baltic domestic politics. At the regional and global levels, Russia would seek to undermine the credibility and cohesion of the NATO alliance in order to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position in Eastern Europe and inflict a political defeat on NATO.


The policy brief may be read in its entirety here.